10 - Lara Belmont as Jessie in The War Zone (1999)
Lara Belmont had never acted before she was spotted in the street and asked to audition for Tim Roth's directorial debut. She was to play Jessie, a teenager engaged in an incestuous relationship with her father (Ray Winstone), and in a film that pulls no punches, she was to appear in some extraordinarily challenging scenes. She possesses an enigmatic beauty in repose, but as the film reaches its climax she provides the picture with its emotionally wrenching centre. She is a natural screen actress, expressing her character's confusion and inner torment with remarkable sensitivity.
9 - Michelle Pfeiffer as Selina Kyle and Catwoman in Batman Returns (1992)
As Selina Kyle, Michelle Pfeiffer is neurotic, nervous, ditzy and basically hopeless at life. As Catwoman, she is wild, dangerous and sexy. As both characters, she is simply perfect. Back in the good old days when a comic book blockbuster could be blatant with its kinky fetishism, Pfeiffer's performance as Catwoman was a revelation, and it was one of those performances that transcended the film it was part of and instantly became iconic. At the time of writing there is much speculation over the possibility of Catwoman appearing in the third of Christopher Nolan's Batman films, but it would be a brave actress who would dare to follow this (Thankfully, Halle berry's attempt seems to have been mostly forgotten).
8 – Holly Hunter as Ada McGrath in The Piano (1993)
Holly Hunter's great achievement here is to show us her character's emotional tumult and inner conflict without having access to one of the actor's most vital tools – her voice. She plays Ada McGrath, a mute Scottish woman whose only joy comes from playing the piano. Her performance is a daring one, making her character tough and withdrawn before gradually revealing her bourgeoning passion as she escapes her unhappy marriage and starts experiencing sexual pleasure with the rough-hewn Baines (Harvey Keitel). The way Hunter communicate emotions with a glance or a smile makes this one of the decade's most amazing performances.
7 - Emily Watson as Bess McNeill in Breaking the Waves (1996)
Helena Bonham Carter was originally cast as Bess McNeill in Lars von Trier's film, but she turned the role down after having doubts about the sexual content. That decision left the door open for Emily Watson to make her screen debut, and what a debut it is. She plays Bess as a pure innocent, fearful of God and completely in love with her husband. There's something disarmingly childlike in her portrayal, most notably in her two-way conversations with God, and we instantly want to protect her as she slides inexorably towards a terrible fate.
6 - Frances McDormand as Marge Gunderson in Fargo (1996)
The most unlikely heroine of the decade? Marge Gunderson is a heavily pregnant police officer living in Brainerd, Minnesota who finds herself mixed up in a case of kidnapping and multiple murders, which she solves through her sheer intuition and tenacity. McDormand's performance is a blend of spot-on comic timing and endearing folksy charm, but she also brings real feeling to the role, as in her penultimate scene, where she considers all of the lives that have been destroyed, "and all for a little bit of money."
5 - Kathy Burke as Val in Nil by Mouth (1997)
Kathy Burke was more widely known for her comedic characters working with Harry Enfield at this point in her career, so her heartfelt turn as an abused wife was a shock for many. She deservedly won the Best Actress prize at Cannes for making Val more than just a punchbag, and for bringing such a depth of feeling, pain and determination to the role. This was never more beautifully expressed than in her final moving monologue to her husband: "I'm 30 today, you know, and I feel so fucking old..."
4 - Élodie Bouchez and Natacha Régnier as Isa and Marie in The Dreamlife of Angels (1998)
The Cannes jury couldn't separate them in 1998, giving them a joint Best Actress prize, and neither can I. They're such a wonderful pair together, so different and yet they click brilliantly. Isa is tempestuous and optimistic, Marie is brittle and nervous, and their relationship is the motor that drives this brilliant film. They make us care about their own characters individually but we also care about their friendship, as we watch the bonds stretch, and pray they won't snap.
3 - Helena Bonham Carter as Kate Croy in The Wings of the Dove (1997)
As Kate Croy, the young woman whose romantic desire and manipulative impulses drive this story, Helena Bonham Carter gives a performance of tremendous intelligence and complexity. She can appear cold-blooded in her scheming, but Bonham Carter keeps her recognisably human as her motives grow ever murkier. Ian Softley makes great use of the actress' dark eyes and sultry demeanour, and she is devastating in the film's climactic scenes, when Kate finally realises how much she has lost.
2 - Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Acting opposite Anthony Hopkins in Jonathan Demme's brilliant thriller, Jodie Foster has to hold her own against a monstrous figure, a supremely intelligent psychopath who is determined to get inside her head. She gives Clarice Starling a brisk determination; determined to crack the case, prove herself to her superior Jack Crawford, and leave behind her past. When Lecter calls her on her "poor white trash" background, it stings, as we have noted the effort she makes to hide her accent. Foster's Starling is driven by this determination but also by a creeping insecurity and vulnerability as she ventures alone into increasingly dangerous territory.
1 - Irène Jacob as Weronika and Véronique in The Double Life of Véronique (1991) and as Valentine in Three Colours: Red (1994)
I'm listing Irène Jacob in the number one slot for three performances in two films – I simply can't separate them. In both roles, she showed herself to be the ultimate muse for Krzysztof Kieslowski; she seemed to encapsulate the very essence of what his films were all about. In Red, she was a model entranced by Jean-Louis Trintignant's cranky old voyeur. In The Double Life of Veronique, she played two doppelgangers in different countries, unaware of each other's presence but linked on a deep unconscious level. Jacob is a stunning presence in these films. She is radiantly beautiful and blessed with an air of openness and mystery that draws me in whenever I watch Kieslowski's two masterpieces.